The Effective Humanist

On Not Misrecognizing the Work of Digital Scholars

Contributed by Rafael Alvarado Associate Director, SHANTI at University of Virginia
May 06, 2011
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Labor & Labor Relations

It is tempting these days to imagine a grim future for the humanities and, more broadly, the residential liberal arts college in which the values of reading and Socratic dialog are central.  We are daily treated to predictions, often gleefully proclaimed, of the extinction of this ancient mode of teaching and learning as a new order of knowledge emerges along with the digital mass media culture of the age.  The discourse of decline is by now so prevalent that we may speak of an apocalyptic style in thinking about higher education in America, a collective voice that cross-cuts political affiliation and which, like the despair inducing shriek of a Nazgûl, has infected even the minds of those who would defend the liberal arts. There are demonstrable trends behind the talk.  I cite four of them:

1. Academic humanism faces a crisis of legitimacy.  The humanities have become less relevant to the world, that is, to working people outside of academia.  Once the hallmark of educated leadership, a liberal arts education has for years been characterized by a postmodernism whose self-concerned esotericism is legendary. Today, postmodernisms’ positivist successor, the New Humanism, carries the mantle of snobbery.  Both seem more interested in disabusing people of cherished beliefs than in pursuing the goal of a liberal arts of education as espoused by Jefferson and Franklin, to educate a democratic citizenry.  As Ian Bogost recently blogged, in response to Duke professor Cathy Davidson’s lament that the humanities are not central to public life, “Humanism does not deserve to carry the standard for humans, for frankly it despises them” (Bogost 2010).  The charge may be unfair, especially as most humanists imagine that they are laying the groundwork for a more just society.  But the effect of this trend is clear: parents may become less willing to send their children to places that insist on erasing the careful work of years of nurturing.   

2. Many think that the education sector is the next economic bubble. A recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that higher education has become “an asset that is irrationally and artificially overvalued and cannot be sustained” (Martin and Horton 2009).  As an investment option, education has many of the same traits as housing.  Both houses and college degrees are core signifiers of the American Dream which have come to be perceived as rights, not privileges. And like housing before the collapse of its market, education has shown a steady and eye-popping incline in costs (around 300% since the 1980s) that is accepted because this same growth appears to guarantee a significant return on investment. But as people begin to perceive that they will not get a return on their investment – and trend #1 does not help here – they will take their money out of the game and the bubble will pop.  Although this argument is flawed for not adequately considering the behavioral economics behind education — for example, there is no analogy to flipping houses in education — it points to the limits of growth in a sector that is already suffering from other shortages, such as tenure-track positions.

3. The institution of tenure, which many consider to be the sine qua non of the academic life and the condition of possibility for genuine scholarship, has been in decline since the 1980s.  Currently the majority of teaching in higher education in the U.S. is performed by non-tenure-track faculty, “gypsy scholars” who barely make a living wage. Aside from the unfairness of a system that cannot even be described as feudal, as there is no patronage or noblesse oblige in it, the reduced pool of tenured faculty in the liberal arts can be taken as an indicator of how much (or little) society, mediated through boards of trustees, values the humanities. The causes of this decline are partly explained by demographics — universities simply produce more doctoral graduates than can be absorbed by the system.  Meanwhile, as student populations grow, the need to teach basic courses only increases. But in spite of the increased price of education, tenure is too expensive to scale to meet this demand — hence the emergence of a shadow-form of labor.  One wonders how far this trend can go before some fundamental change  (or correction) to the system takes place.

4. The use of digital technology, long at the margins of scholarship, is beginning to make inroads into the core of the academy, which has resisted its incursions for years.  Although higher education administrations adopted technology relatively early to manage the low-hanging fruit of registrar and student data, the labor-intensive and profoundly human domains of teaching and research have been notoriously absent from the technological makeovers that have characterized the private sector and even government. But things are different now; there is change in the air. Deans and presidents are increasingly viewing technology not merely as means to increase student to faculty ratios (a red herring, when quality is part of the conversation), but rather as legitimate media with literacies having fundamental effects on how work in the academy gets done, and the nature of that work itself.  The new respect being granted digital media is a cautious one, however, guided by the same ambivalence that characterizes the views, for example, of Nicholas Carr and Edward Tufte, both of whom have flatly accused some technologies of making people stupid. And if technology makes us stupid, especially very popular forms of technology like PowerPoint and Google, then the academy’s embracing of it can only speed our decline.

Among these trends, the most interesting is the last.  Each of the others is both threatening and beyond our reach — a real source of despair.  But although the fourth is likely to have a multiplier effect on the other trends, hastening the unfolding of their logic, it also contains the potential for a disruption that allows it to play opportunity’s open window to the others’ closed doors.  I am interested in one specific form of disruption — the introduction of so-called knowledge work into the academy through the vehicle of information technology — and the specific opportunity it opens up for colleges of liberal arts. 

In making the case for the potential of technology to affect the fate of the liberal arts, I set to one side the well-meaning but I think misguided millenarianism that currently flourishes among academic technologists under the guise of this or that 2.0.  Those who would replace the residential college with a distributed connectivist network are overly committed to a belief in a transparent mediation that is demonstrably absent from the Internet. As Carr rightly argues, the web is not less mediated than traditional forms of communication and exchange, it is more so, incredibly more so. It is hypermediated: for the first time in human history, the traces of ephemeral communication are not only captured, they are stored, organized, and mined for purposes far beyond the needs for establishing the transaction. Edupunks are rightly concerned about the “corporatism” of this new kind of mediation, but its social and cultural implications are much more profound and interesting than an instinctual fear of capitalism would imply.

To grasp these implications, it is important to understand the specific nature of disruption caused by the technologies in question. The salient, concrete social effect of information technology is that it disrupts the order of labor — how work gets done and who does it.  The first effect is typically misrecognized as having to do with degrees of efficiency and convenience, with qualitative changes viewed only in retrospect or by the highly perspicacious.  The second is equally invisible at the level of discourse, but has keen effects on those whose labor is directly affected by the loss of a market or perceived usurpation. 

The disruptive effects of technology on the nature and division of labor helps explains a puzzle concerning the impact of social media on academia: why, after half a century of computer usage in the academy and an equally long tradition of computing in the humanities, are university administrators only now taking proponents of digital media seriously, as an academic force to be considered? The proximate cause of the this change of perspective is the emergence of social media, a development of the internet no one predicted, and which now strikes at the core of the liberal arts institution. For although word processors and learning management systems are easily domesticated and incorporated into traditional workflows, this is not true of blogs, wikis, games, and social networking sites.  These media disrupt and challenge the old but delicate social arrangement among librarians, publishers, faculty, students, and administrators that comprises the centuries old division of labor of higher education.  The effect of social media is that relations of production in the academy are directly disrupted, which causes shared tacit knowledge about what counts as academic work to be raised to the level of discourse. And, to the extent that traditional structures are guarded most effectively by the invisible shield of the unspoken, mere talk may be a sign of real change.

I offer here a set of bullet points in the trajectory of that change:

  • The digital humanities remain misrecognized—variously invisible, demonized, and deified.
  • This misrecognition is a symptom of liminality, the cultural condition of being hard to classify, for categories are tied to social organization—and specifically to the division of labor—but they are also lagging indicators of social organization (Douglas 1986).
  • This situation leads to a misrecognition of labor as discourse about new forms of labor evolves to catch up.
  • We also misrecognize the nature of labor — and must begin to acknowledge the difference between knowledge work and scholarship.
  • Knowledge work in the academy is disruptive.
  • Knowledge work was not invented in the academy.
  • Knowledge work associated with information technology from its earliest usage.
  • Knowledge work is associated with effectiveness.
  • And effectiveness as a value is a variant of American pragmatism.
  • We might see this as connected to the idea of a “useful education” (viz. Franklin and Rush), an idea that has become muddled.
  • The concepts of knowledge work and effectiveness are useful in understanding the work of digital humanists.
  • Like librarianship and publishing, the digital humanities provision scholarship, and focus on the key work of representation.
  • A focus on representation contrasts with liberal arts scholarship, which is concerned with the ongoing reinterpretation of culture and tradition. (Indeed, it is concerned with re-recognizing the always-in-danger-of-being-misrecognized corpus of inherited cultural work.)
  • Perhaps, to be effective (digital) humanists, we should turn to "interpretation support." (Consider Jefferson’s experimentation with reading and writing devices, or Franklin’s with new media.)
  • The effective humanist is something to be — and in the context of the introduction of knowledge work into the academy, we might predict that the presence of the effective humanist will not eliminate the residential college experience, but will strengthen it, even as it inflects its direction.


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Response from
Alex Gil

June 22, 2011

Re: The Effective Humanist

Excellent piece, Rafa! I hope to respond more fully soon.